The toxic legacy of air pollution

The risks to brains and babies

We have known air pollution kills lots of people, including as many as 1.5 million each year in China, with 400,000 early deaths in the EU, and as many as 7 million premature deaths a year globally.  It also inflicts serious respiratory and cardiovascular disease, including asthma, on many more.

Now we are learning that the risks from air pollution are more insidious than we imagined.






A recent study in China found that air pollution causes a “huge” reduction in intelligence as reflected in significant reductions in test scores in language and arithmetic.  On average the results showed the loss of a year’s worth of education from the air pollution, with language skills more affected than mathematics.  Earlier research had demonstrated that air pollution harmed cognitive performance in students, but this study was able to show that the adverse effects were worse for the elderly, especially those over 64, and worse for men than women.  So all those critical financial decisions that people make as they get older, like how to survive retirement, may be less informed that we thought.

Having some problems with words and math is not the only deficit you can look forward to because of air pollution.  In an observational study, air pollution has been linked to a 40% increase in dementia for people over 50 in areas of the highest levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) in the air compared to those living in least NOx pollution.

It is not only the aging population that has to worry quite a bit about air pollution.  Earlier studies had linked air pollution to risks of premature births and low birth weight and other harms in unborn babies.  Research has now found direct evidence that toxic air travels through pregnant womens’ lungs and into their placentas.   The study was of women in London.  While not yet confirmed, the deep concern is that the particles can move into the foetus and affect the unborn and newly born babies.





It is not like we do not know the source of what is causing these risks.  Road traffic is one of the worse sources of air pollution.  So this new research underlines even more the increasingly irresponsible behavior of the UK government in refusing to act according to the law to reduce this source of air pollution, as demonstrated in the long-running court battle with ClientEarth.

A recent development in Spain seems timely as it can help avoid some of the effects of this air pollution.  Researchers have developed an app that relies on data from air quality monitors throughout Madrid to build a mapping application that calculates the least polluted route from one location to another.

But the clearer, nearly impossible, solution is simply to get rid of cars, as John Vidal has recently urged.



Frances Bloomfield, “Air pollution in northern China reducing life expectancy,” Natural News (9 September 2018).

Damian Carrington and Lily Kuo, “Air pollution causes ‘huge’ reduction in intelligence, study reveals,” The Guardian (27 August 2018).

Damian Carrington, “Air pollution particles found in mothers’ placentas: New research shows direct evidence that toxic air – already strongly linked to harm in unborn babies – travels through mothers’ bodies,” The Guardian (16 Sept 2018).

ClientEarth, New clean air consultation shows UK government struggling to solve air pollution crisis (29 may 2018).

Fiona Harvey, “Air pollution linked to much greater risk of dementia,” The Guardian (18 Sept 2018).

Nicole Wetsman, “Want to Avoid Pollution on Your Way Home? Madrid Has an App for That,” The Daily Beast (17 Sept 2018).

John Vidal, “Want to cut air pollution? Get rid of your car,” The Guardian (19 Sept 2018).


Editor’s Update (12 Oct 2018):  Nicola Davis, “Air pollution linked to greater risk of mouth cancer, finds study,” The Guardian (9 Oct 2018).

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